There are rumours, though no official statements, that the coalition partners BJP and Akali Dal may part ways in the assembly elections next year.
I am a Sikh first, and other things second.” Upkar Singh Sandhu clearly means it when he says it. On October 24, he quit as president of the Amritsar district unit of the Shiromani Akali Dal and chairman of Punjab Energy Development Authority, and returned the official car with the infamous red beacon and the security guards.
As he was announcing his move at a news conference at the party office (which he had set up on his own property in Amritsar's upmarket Ranjit Avenue), his phone rang. It was someone close to Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal's son Sukhbir Badal, who is deputy chief minister. Sandhu ignored it. When the phone did not stop ringing, he switched it off.
A few messengers of the Badals were waiting for Sandhu when he reached home. When they tried to persuade him to withdraw the decision, he told them it was final.
Sandhu is one of the 40 people who severed links with the SAD, a party which draws its sustenance and votes from the Sikh community which holds the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, the Akal Takht and other Sikh institutions and practices in high regard. He is angry with the Badals and says he is ashamed of calling himself an Akali. In fact, most Sikhs share Sandhu's anger. They have long been annoyed and disappointed with how Sukhbir Badal abused power and failed to bring in development, create jobs or pull farmers out of their morass. They watched in dismay the Badals amass personal wealth and keep power within the family. But they decided it could go no longer like this when Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was pardoned by the SGPC on September 24 for an act of blasphemy in 2007.
There have been many instances of sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, in recent weeks, forcing the Sikh community to take it to the streets against the Akali Dal and the Punjab government. The police responded with water cannons and batons, and even opened fire killing two Sikh youths.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh dressed like the Sikh gurus and created a ceremony resembling the birth of the Khalsa. While Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh guru and the last one in the human form, called his Khalsas 'Singhs' in 1699, Ram Rahim Singh gave his followers directions to add 'Insaan' to their names. Sikhs rose in revolt, and for two months Punjab seemed slipping back to the days of clashes and killings. As courts took cognisance of the matter, Ram Rahim Singh clarified his position. But the Sikh community rejected the explanation, and, under the aegis of the Akal Takht and SGPC, the community socially boycotted the Dera Sacha Sauda. Later, the Punjab government banned his films, MSG: The Messenger (released in February 2015) and MSG-2: The Messenger (released in October).
Jaswinder Singh, advocate and former member of the SGPC, says he was shocked to know that Sukhbir Badal went to actor Akshay Kumar's house in Mumbai to meet Ram Rahim Singh and the head priest of Sri Damdama Sahib in August. A month later, the Akal Takht head priest Giani Gurbachan Singh invited the head priests of the five Takhts (historical gurdwaras) and issued a written pardon to Ram Rahim Singh.
“That was the biggest shock for Sikhs,” says Jaswinder. “When the Akal Takht issued an edict in 2007, they told the community to be prepared to make any sacrifice. Three youths were killed in clashes with the Dera, and there was strife and loss of business, life was thrown out of gear for long spells. This time, they did not bother to consult anyone and announced it on their own.”
The eight-year-old blasphemy case against Ram Rahim Singh had been lying dormant till June, when the Granth Sahib from a gurdwara in Bargari went missing. The villagers asked for a police investigation and announced a reward of Rs.5 lakh to anyone who finds it. The next day they found an anonymous notice, threatening to tear a page of the book every day. The notice dared the Sikhs to find the the copy and offered a reward of Rs.10 lakh. “The police did nothing. The government did nothing. Then came the pardon, followed by the desecrations at many places. But all our protests were peaceful, no anti-government slogan and not a single unsheathed sword, though there were lakhs of people. What did the police do? They opened fire on us,” says Kuljeet Singh, owner of Singh Brothers, a book store exclusively dealing in Sikh history and literature.
The Akali Dal has always been meant to protect Sikh interests and it made no bones about having one foot in religion and the other in politics. This is because the religion believes the two are intertwined. “While that is true, what it means is that religious tenets should guide politics,” says Jaswinder, who, at 27, was the youngest member of the SGPC when elected in 1996. “Not that politicians and political parties should have a tight grip on religious bodies like the SGPC and Akal Takht.” He quit the party two years ago, disenchanted with the way the religious bodies were handled by Sukhbir Badal.
When the Sikh anger over the pardon hit the Badals on their face, Giani Gurbachan Singh, the Akal Takht head priest, rescinded the pardon. But the rift in the community only grew deeper, with people attacking Akali Dal legislators and SGPC members. “When I was about to sit in my car, a group of men attacked me with whatever they had in their hands,” says SGPC member Paramjit Singh Rajpur, a Badal confidant. Sukhbir Badal himself was taken into a gurdwara in Muktsar recently through the backdoor.
The state government tried to control the damage by replacing the director-general of police Sumedh Singh Saini with Suresh Arora. People were angry over the inability of the police to find the culprits and the firing that killed two youths. The anger against the police peaked when they blamed a “foreign hand” for the sacrilege and named two Sikh NRI youths.
There are rumours, though no official statements, that the coalition partners BJP and Akali Dal may part ways in the assembly elections next year. And, both parties are trying to woo not just Dera Sacha Sauda, but the other deras in the state as well. The Akalis lost in the Malwa belt, believed to be an area of influence of Ram Rahim Singh, in the last elections. “The SAD has taken the Sikh votes for granted. Anyone who is a Sikh won't tolerate this pardon, this seeking of support of a man showing disrespect to the Guru. Sikhs have seen through the political game of the SAD. People are not fools,” says Sandhu.
There are indications that more leaders will leave the Akali Dal as elections come closer. “The community will work to defeat the SAD and the Badals to teach them a lesson. They made the SGPC, the Akal Takht, the head priests their puppets,” says Sandhu. Many Sikhs, he says, see this as worse than Operation Blue Star in 1984.
On the Diwali day of 1984, the Golden Temple was thronged by lakhs of devotees, who were anxious, concerned, sad and angry. As a mark of their protest, the customary Diwali lighting was not done and there were no fireworks. This year, too, is going to be a dark Diwali at the holiest of Sikh shrines, and the water around the Darbar Sahib will not reflect any light.